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sci-fi

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

DIRECTOR: Denis Villeneuve

CAST: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Robin Wright, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Jared Leto, Dave Bautista

REVIEW:

WARNING: WHILE THIS REVIEW ATTEMPTS TO AVOID MAJOR “SPOILERS”, IT WILL REVEAL ASPECTS OF THE FILM’S PLOT

Thirty-five years ago, Ridley Scott directed Blade Runner, which while receiving mostly negative critical reviews and failing to make back its budget at the box office (Harrison Ford fans likely expected something more action-oriented than what was on display), gained a cult following and is held up today as a visionary sci-fi classic.  In the intervening decades, Scott has occasionally returned to the Blade Runner universe with a 1992 director’s cut and a 2007 “final cut”, while speculation about a follow-up percolated, which has finally been brought to the screen by Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Prisoners, Arrival), who took over directorial duties when Scott stepped down due to scheduling conflicts with Alien: Covenant (although he remains credited as producer).  While perhaps slightly less obtuse, Blade Runner 2049 maintains the tone and pacing of its forefather (which, depending on who you ask, might be a good or bad thing) and is a close cousin.  To those for whom the original Blade Runner is not their cup of tea, 2049 seems unlikely to convert them, but those with high regard for Scott’s 1982 film may find much to appreciate about this long-awaited return to its dark world. Continue reading

Alien: Covenant (2017)

DIRECTOR: Ridley Scott

CAST: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Danny McBride, Billy Crudup

REVIEW:

In 2012, Ridley Scott returned to the universe of his 1979 sci-fi horror classic Alien with the ambitious, sporadically compelling, but in some ways unwieldy and half-formed Prometheus, but those who went to the theater expecting more traditional xenomorph action were disappointed.  Originally, Scott intended to follow up Prometheus with a follow-up tentatively titled Paradise which would have gone even further afield from Alien, but in the wake of Prometheus‘ lukewarm reception, Fox decided to play it safe and explored other options for getting back to the aliens as we know them, including with Neill Blomkamp’s proposed sequel to James Cameron’s 1986 Aliens which would have reunited Sigourney Weaver and Michael Biehn and potentially wiped all other sequels out in favor of an alternate storyline (which, given the declining quality level of Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrectionmany fans would have been okay with).  However, when the grandfather of the franchise Ridley Scott himself expressed willingness to make an Alien movie that was less like Prometheus and more like the traditional films, Fox gave him the green light and Blomkamp’s project became indefinitely dead in the water.  The result bears all the hallmarks of a movie stuck in some netherworld between being a follow-up to Prometheus and a more conventional Alien movie, but serves up enough of what fans liked about the series in the first place to be an engaging diversion, even if it doesn’t approach the franchise at its height. Continue reading

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

DIRECTOR: James Gunn

CAST: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper (voice), Vin Diesel (voice), Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Kurt Russell, Pom Klementieff, Elizabeth Debicki

REVIEW:

Back in 2014, Guardians of the Galaxy was considered a risky proposition for Marvel Studios, spending a lot of money making and promoting a movie featuring superheroes far lesser-known than the likes of Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and company who make up Marvel’s flagship The Avengers, but three years and $750 million later, the new film franchise is one of the flourishing studio’s most popular properties.  Now that the inevitable sequel has arrived, the wait will probably be worth it for most fans.  The simply titled Vol. 2 is an entertaining ride, even if it lacks a little of the freshness of its predecessor and at times feels a little weighed down by the burden on sequels to be “bigger”. Continue reading

Life (2017)

DIRECTOR: Daniel Espinosa

CAST: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds, Hiroyuki Sanda, Ariyon Bakare, Olga Dihovichnaya

REVIEW:

WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS “SPOILERS”

Among the various sci-fi thrillers over the decades that owe greater or lesser degrees of inspiration to Ridley Scott’s 1979 AlienLife is one of the worthier indirect descendants/homages.  Daniel Espinosa is not terribly subtle about borrowing a page (or several pages) from Alien, but screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (the same men behind 2016’s very different Deadpool) also come up with enough twists and turns on their own for it not to be unforgivably derivative.  But while fans of Alien may find Life worth a look, be warned: this is a dark, gruesome ride that is not for the faint of heart or for those who demand happy endings. Continue reading

Passengers (2016)

passengersDIRECTOR: Morten Tyldum

CAST: Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Michael Sheen, Laurence Fishburne

REVIEW:

WARNING: THIS REVIEW WILL DISCUSS AN IMPORTANT PLOT POINT

Passengers is somewhat tricky to categorize; it’s firmly within the sci-fi genre, but without the action of Star Wars or Star Trek (at least until the third act), and it’s a love story but one steeped in moral ambiguity.  Some will find it too slow-paced, while others accuse it of romanticizing the unsavory circumstances under which its romance begins (which I do not, for the most part, agree with).  Perhaps unsurprisingly, given its controversial premise and somewhat indecisive tone, it’s already set to be an expensive flop, which is a bit of a shame.  The movie has flaws, but they’re not insurmountable, and the premise and themes are substantial enough to be compelling. Continue reading

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

rogueDIRECTOR: Gareth Edwards

CAST: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Forest Whitaker, Ben Mendelsohn, Mads Mikkelsen, Donnie Yen, Jiang Wen, Riz Ahmed, Alan Tudyk (voice)

REVIEW:

WARNING: THIS REVIEW WILL CONTAIN “SPOILERS”

Rogue One, the second entry in Disney’s revival of the Star Wars franchise after buying the rights from creator George Lucas, represents a risky departure and an attempt at doing something different with the iconic property.  Unlike last year’s The Force AwakensRogue One is not a continuation of the main series (as evidenced by being titled as a Star Wars “story” as opposed to an episode), but a mostly stand-alone entry that serves as a prequel/tie-in with the original 1977 A New Hope, chronicling the untold story of exactly how those stolen Death Star plans fell into the rebels’ hands in the first place.  The result comes with plenty of familiar Star Wars trappings (some more heavy-handed than others), but a markedly different tone and feel.  Rogue One bears more resemblance to a Dirty Dozen-style war/spy thriller than a conventional Star Wars movie.  To that end, it’s generally well-crafted, but doesn’t completely avoid feeling like a “take it or leave it” footnote to the original trilogy. Continue reading

Arrival (2016)

arrivalDIRECTOR: Denis Villeneuve

CAST: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg

REVIEW:

Based on the short story “Story Of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, Arrival is the latest motion picture to dramatize an oft-theorized “first contact” scenario, and follows in the wake of Gravity, Interstellarand The Martian as the latest in Hollywood’s recent trend of “hard sci-fi” movies.  Among these kinds of movies, it’s a cinematic cousin to Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Robert Zemeckis’ Contact, and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, and on the polar end of the spectrum from the likes of Independence Day.  Those looking for an action flick should look elsewhere, lest they probably be bored senseless.  Arrival is a linguistics lesson with bonus existential questions wrapped up in a slow burn, low-key docudrama that makes considerable demands of commitment and attention from a patient and intelligent audience looking for something to pick their brain rather than rev up their adrenaline.  Unfortunately, while its aims are admirable in some ways, Arrival gets so wrapped up in its own dry, professorial theorizing that as a motion picture, it never quite “arrives”. Continue reading

Star Trek Beyond (2016)

beyondDIRECTOR: Justin Lin

CAST: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Sofia Boutella, Idris Elba

REVIEW:

Star Trek: Beyond, the third installment in the “new” Star Trek reboot series, with Justin Lin of the Fast & Furious series taking over from J.J. Abrams (who stepped back to merely producing while busy rebooting another sci-fi franchise with Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens), feels like a super-sized, feature-length episode of the original series (with a budget it could only have dreamed of, of course), but while there are more of Gene Rodenberry’s fingerprints on this one than its two immediate predecessors, the script by Doug Jung and Simon Pegg (the latter of whom, of course, also co-stars as Scotty) fails to go “beyond” as the title aspires toward.   Continue reading

Independence Day: Resurgence (2016)

ID42DIRECTOR: Roland Emmerich

CAST: Jeff Goldblum, Liam Hemsworth, Bill Pullman, Brent Spiner, Jessie T. Usher, Maika Monroe, Judd Hirsch, William Fichtner, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Sela Ward

REVIEW:

It feels a little odd to complain about a movie being “big, dumb, brainless summer entertainment” when it’s a sequel to a movie, 1996’s blockbuster Independence Day, that could be described with that same quote, but not only does Independence Day: Resurgence join London Has Fallen among this spring/summer’s superfluous sequels, but this long-gestating follow-up also manages to fall short of a predecessor that wasn’t that great to begin with.  I admit to having a bit of a nostalgic soft spot for ID4; it’s not a “great” movie, but it’s a cheesily entertaining wannabe “epic” and nostalgia has won it a fond place—perhaps more than it deserves—in the hearts of a generation that grew up with it.  But while rumors of a follow-up were around virtually since the original’s release, twenty years is an awfully long time to wait.  It’s hard to imagine many ardent Independence Day fans salivating for more.   Continue reading

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015)

firefightDIRECTOR: J.J. Abrams

CAST: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Domhnall Gleeson, Lupita Nyong’o, Max von Sydow, Gwendoline Christie, Andy Serkis, Peter Mayhew, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker

REVIEW:

With 1977’s Star Wars (at the time simply titled “Star Wars”, later as Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope), writer-director George Lucas launched a pop culture phenomenon that has arguably never seen its equal (Harry Potter mania might be the closest runner-up), and 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back and 1983’s The Return of the Jedi only solidified its status.  It’s hard to overestimate Star Wars‘ influence on the filmmaking industry, whether bringing sci-fi into the mainstream, hearkening back to the old-fashioned adventures of Flash Gordon and the like, bringing about a virtual visual effects revolution, spawning countless imitators and direct and indirect descendants, spawning a massive merchandising blitz and copious tie-ins with novelizations, animated series, highly collectible action figures, “Expanded Universe” fanfiction that took on a life of its own, and launching Industrial Light & Magic and Lucasfilm.  One doesn’t have to be a Star Wars nerd to know phrases like “may the Force be with you” or know who Darth Vader is.  The long-gestating prequel trilogy, beginning in 1999, was anticipated with astronomical expectations no films could possibly have lived up to, and that and various questionable choices on Lucas’ part tainted the franchise for many fans, sparking a sometimes over-the-top fan backlash.  By his own admission, the vitriol from some disappointed fans turned Lucas off to all things Star Wars, and he eventually sold the property to Disney.  And now, a decade after the last of the prequels, the first Star Wars movie to have no involvement from George Lucas has brought the iconic text crawl across theater screens again.  Director J.J. Abrams (whose reboot of the Star Trek film series could be said to be a warm-up for this) makes his fanboy levels of love for Star Wars obvious (sometimes too obvious), but while an entertaining space fantasy adventure in keeping with the spirit of what Lucas originated, The Force Awakens falls somewhat short.  It’s better-crafted than the prequels, but lacks a certain spark that keeps it from ascending to the original trilogy’s iconic status.  Fans with open minds may find much to appreciate, but tempered expectations may lead to a more positive reaction. Continue reading

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